A reader writes:
How toxic is superglue?
All I really know about it is that it's technically called "cyanoacrylate", but the "cyano" part makes me nervous. The last episode of Mythbusters I saw had them sticking stuff to other stuff with superglue (which they called "super adhesive" for some reason) and they were wearing gas masks while doing it.
Am I endangering my health if I superglue a teacup together without lots of ventilation? My son's just now started building model airplanes and tends to stare so close at the model I'm expecting him to stick a propellor to his nose soon; is HE going to be poisoned too?!
At some point in the next few thousand words I may answer your question, Eva. You know how it is with me.
The magic acronym (or possibly initialism) to remember whenever you want to know how strongly a given substance desires to kill you is "MSDS", for Material Safety Data Sheet. You can find an MSDS for just about anything, provided you know the name of the substance in question. You usually don't need to know the exact chemical name, either; brand names, especially of pharmaceuticals, often work.
One popular substance can have a large number of MSDSes for it, sometimes with different data, because, for instance, a product sold under the same name by different companies may be made with different constituents. MSDSes may also differ even when they're talking about the exact same substance, because different manufacturers and importers and so on may have different testing regimes, or may just plain get stuff wrong. Generally speaking, though, you can trust MSDSes, even if you can't find one for the exact brand of, in this case, cyanoacrylate (which is known to the relevant chemists, and many hobbyists, as "CA") you're worried about.
When I say "just about anything" above, I mean it. Here's an MSDS (in PDF format, like most online MSDSes these days), for skim milk. Including rather excessive first aid procedures to employ in case the substance is ingested.
Here's one, and another, for olive oil. More over-enthusiastic warnings; apparently you're not meant to allow olive oil to make direct contact with the skin. MSDSes for innocuous substances are often like this, possibly for reasons having to do with the covering of arses, or perhaps because there was no "zero hazard" box for the MSDS-maker to tick.
OK, enough silliness. Search for MSDSes for cyanoacrylate, plus a common brand name or two like "Krazy Glue", and you'll get hits like this, this, this and this. Here's a whole page of MSDSes for Loctite products, including various other glues and threadlocks. There's a "safety" section in the Wikipedia article for CA, too, plus some MSDS links at the end.
What all of these agree on is that CA products of various kinds, from the water-thin stuff used to wick into gaps in plastic models through to various non-runny gel-type versions, are not nearly as poisonous as you'd think from their alarming "chemical" odour. The fumes are an eye and mucous-membrane irritant, and if you're sticking a whole room worth of furniture to the ceiling as they did on MythBusters then you'd be nuts not to wear some kind of breathing protection, but this stuff really isn't that bad. I don't think it even releases much in the way of horrifyingly deadly gases if you burn it, though again, this is not recommended.
(With regard to the title of this post, glues that people sniff to get high in a rather dangerous manner are generally based on some kind of solvent with psychoactive effects, though usually not effects that people living a life somewhere above rock bottom would consider worth the damage. Glues with no such solvent, like CA, PVA, hide glue or epoxy, often aren't particularly bad to inhale, which is just as well since they won't even get you high.)
Part of the reason why superglue isn't very poisonous is that its "set" state, a hard polymerised lump, isn't toxic. It's still listed as an "eye irritant" when hardened, but only in the way that sand is. And CA really wants to polymerise. All actual CA glue contains "inhibitor" chemicals in addition to the CA itself, to stop the stuff from instantly turning into a lump of plastic in the bottle. Several common compounds in the world, chief among them water, will "kick" CA into polymerising. And since your eyes and mucous membranes and so on are all rather damp, any CA vapour that hits them polymerises instantly.
Now, this is still not a good situation, since having a very thin layer of plastic accumulate inside your nose and on your eyeballs is not most people's idea of a good time, but the body can deal with tiny amounts of the stuff with no trouble. (This also means that all you probably need as the abovementioned "breathing protection" is a damp cloth tied around your face.)
You can take advantage of the effect water has on CA to accelerate its bonding, by for instance breathing heavily on the two pieces of something you're gluing before bringing them together, or even by spitting on the glue, in extremis. That won't give you a very good bond, but if you're in a hurry, it'll do. You can also sprinkle bicarbonate of soda on the glue, or dribble CA onto bicarb, to get an instantly set, hard but brittle filler material. (It's basically Bondo for plastic spaceships.)
There are also liquids, known as "CA accelerators" or "kickers", that give you an almost instant full-strength bond when they touch CA. You generally put glue on one piece, a spritz of accelerator on the other, then bring them together and zap, instant gluing of two parts that you didn't quite bring together straight, god damn it.
(The accelerators, needless to say, have their own MSDSes.)
I'm not sure how much variation there is between the different accelerators; these days I just buy whatever's cheapest on eBay. Note that CA accelerator tends to be rather volatile and thus prone to liberate itself from the spray-bottle faster than many people can use the stuff. I recommend you keep the sprayer in a Ziploc bag.
The fact that there are substances that kick CA better than water does is the base for products like the one described in this MSDS, which is for a CA formulation used for fingerprint "fuming". You can do this neat little science trick with any CA, not just special expensive law-enforcement CA:
One thing hobbyists discover pretty quickly about CA, especially if they're using accelerator as well, is that the polymerisation process is exothermic. The glue gets warm as it polymerises, the increased temperature speeds up the polymerisation, and with enough glue and enough accelerator (or just CA by itself, if it's on something with a lot of surface area - cotton is particularly bad) the result is boiling polymerising CA. I don't trust any hobbyist who hasn't emptied five whole dollars worth of discount-store superglue into a very disposable container in the back garden, then added some generous squirts of accelerator, and stood well back.
This is another CA hazard. If you spill a lot of it on your cotton-denim jeans (or somehow just manage to deliberately use an unusually large amount), the profoundly crappy time you'd reasonably expect to have in your immediate future may be made significantly crappier by some nasty burns.
Anybody who's ever used superglue will have stuck the wrong things together, though with any luck just one finger to another, not a square foot of garment to singed flesh. If possible, a good way to remove CA is mechanically, with sandpaper or a file or, for many glue-on-skin situations, a disposable razor. (Or you can just wait; as the outer layer of your skin naturally flakes off, the glue will go with it.)
CA can also be dissolved with acetone, but the MSDSes for acetone are rather more alarming than those for CA. There are less toxic glue debonders out there too; again, please accept my very personal recommendation of whatever's cheapest on eBay and isn't just acetone.
(CA is also not just kicked into polymerisation by water, but also slightly soluble in it. So a long hot bath or shower may help you out, provided you have enough un-stuck limbs to be able to operate the taps.)
While I'm giving unrequested buying advice, as far as CA itself goes, I just buy it from discount shops. Given CA's irritating propensity to go hard in the bottle, I like the few-dollar cardboard oblongs with multiple little separately-bubble-packed tubes, the more and the smaller the better. Unless you've got an ongoing meaningful relationship with a local hobby shop - which I recommend; it's worth paying a bit extra for stuff if wise counsel on various subjects, or just hours of entertaining chat, is available in return - I see no reason to buy fancy brand-name CA for almost any job.
Getting back to that alarming cyano group which is indeed hanging off the few different, but effectively almost identical, kinds of CA molecule, it is in this case not much to worry about, but certainly is if it's hanging off something less complex, like a potassium or hydrogen atom. I find the lethality of various cyanide compounds almost amusing, since it's yet another sign of the absence of "intelligent design" of even this one planet, let alone the whole universe.
I mean, what's the element that's the basis of all life on this planet? Carbon. What makes up 78% of the planet's atmosphere? Nitrogen. (Don't miss this sample!) What do you get when the two of them get together? Cyanide, a deadly poison. It's sort of the opposite of the sodium-plus-chlorine thing.
And while I'm rabbiting on, I was also amused by MythBusters' and/or Discovery Channel's determination to call the glue they were using "super adhesive", a term that doesn't really exist in nature, to the point where a couple of slip-ups when someone said "superglue" anyway made it to air. This is in line with MythBusters' general self-censorship policy, in which no brands not integral to the myth are blurred or taped over or covered with new labels reminiscent of Repo Man.
Sometimes this policy seems to make little sense, though. In a recent special episode, MythBusters shot a .50 AE round from a Desert Eagle into watermelons, and they called the gun a Desert Eagle, even though there are various other firearms that chamber that round. But in the episode a while back where they demonstrated what a bad idea it is to wrap your hand around the cylinder of a .50 Smith & Wesson revolver when firing it, not one mention was there of the brand of that gun, though anybody familiar with the preposterous hand-cannon arms race of recent years could have mistaken a S&W Model 500 for anything else.
(If you haven't been watching the nutty progression of ever-more-wrist-smashingly-powerful handgun cartridges and the you've-gotta-be-kidding-me guns that shoot them, compared to which the action-movie-staple .50 AE Desert Eagle's .44-Magnum-ish bullet energy looks positively feeble, then you could be forgiven for thinking a short-barreled Model 500 was some kind of flare gun. I wonder if even this has been surpassed by now?)
The "super adhesive" thing is particularly nutty, though, since they could have just called it cyanoacrylate.
And then commenters will, I hope, correct at least the most obvious flaws in my answer.